Tattoos: My Declaration of Feminism

Caroline Biggs is a graduate student in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College, fashion addict, pop cultural junkie, and  girl-about-NYC.

So I want to start by saying I have never really been a “tattoo person.” I quote and marginalize said persons because I always saw those who reveled in permanent body art (and I’m not talking about the occasional small of the back or hip tattoo) as committed to a lifestyle decision: that of being a woman who expresses herself via bodily adornment (that lasts FOREVER mind you). Unlike fashion, which constantly shifts and evolves stylistically, tattoos were more like a piece of statement jewelry—something that doesn’t define the person’s aesthetic but definitely functions as the focal point. And being the fashionista that I am, complete with outfits that are more often than not comparable to that of a costumed figure skater, the last thing I ever needed was to draw more attention to myself.

Then, at 18, after a weekend of heavy drinking and amidst the low-rise jean craze that I fell victim to, I got my first tattoo—a cartoonish flower on the small of my back that did not and will not ever represent anything symbolic other than being 18 and saying I had a tattoo. The entire process took about 4 and a half minutes (all of which I was crying from the pain of the needle) and I left Manhattan, Kansas forever marked with, well, a fuchsia cartoon flower. I was sure that was all of the tattooed symbolism I would ever need.

However, after a few landmark accomplishments in my life, I began to understand the function of imprinting my body with symbols that reflected the person I had been and was becoming. The first urge came to me when I graduated summa cum laude from the University of Kansas and had completed a tedious thesis that involved months of travel, research, and writing. I had immersed myself in feminist theory, art, and literature and identified as staunch feminist and fierce female. I became obsessed with the idea of getting the female symbol tattooed on me; I wanted to brand my body symbolically, I just wasn’t sure where. When I finally decided to go through with it (after the loss of a dear friend and subsequent rash move to Chicago) I put it front row and center of my right forearm for the entire world to see. I was smitten.

Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was the marginal “tattooed girl.” Everywhere I went: nice restaurants, clubs, fashion shows (etc.) I was viewed as more courageous and expressive than before—and received way more attention than when I wore my thigh-high fringed moccasins or even my massive Betsey Johnson pearls. Once, when I went on a blind-date with a mutual friend, he saw the tattoo and asked if I was either “confused about my gender or a feminist?” When I responded with the enthusiastic latter, he rolled his eyes and I left promptly. My tattoo had become way more than a declaration of my feminism, it was now a social filter for weeding out misogynists and bad dates!

The second itch came after two years in Chicago. I was running a popular clothing boutique in the uber-hip area of Wicker Park and had become dear friends with Nex, a famed tattoo artist who worked at the years-to-get-in Metamorph studios (conveniently located across the street). I had only recently decided to apply to the Women’s History Graduate Program at Sarah Lawrence College (the only school I applied to because it was the only one I would go to, mind you) and when I was accepted knew it was the right time to celebrate with another marking. Except this time, it would be bigger and more profound as my long-favored words to live by from Mae West: “A dame that knows the ropes isn’t likely to get tied up.”

When Nex squeezed me in the following week, I was confronted with the actuality of my tattoo: it was going to be big and indiscreet, mostly because it was far too long of a quote to be legible in small font. So after a quick pep talk and a reminder of the power of the quote, I resolved on its location—my entire right shoulder blade. Four tedious hours later, it was done, and my life as I knew it would never be the same.

Everyone who knew me loved the tattoo, as did I. Summer in Chicago meant skinny strapped sundresses and tube dresses, all of which accented the stark black of the text on my shoulder. Female bartenders who read it gave me free drinks because they found it courageous and inspiring, women on the train approached me and took pictures, and Nex received a slew of fan emails from people all over the city who wanted their own variation of the quote and font. The feminist function of the tattoo was more than I had ever anticipated as women all around me were empowered by my devotion to West’s words. And I unabashedly reveled in my symbolic expressionism.

What I didn’t anticipate, however, was the male response to my tattoo—one that teeters somewhere between cowardly and perverse. The threatened men are always the creepiest—their blatant fear of both a woman who would boldly tattoo themselves with a seemingly feminist statement and suggestive independence—just seems to much for them to bear. “Well I will just have to get stronger rope” or “But what if you want to get tied up?” becomes the threatened man’s response of choice (and one that makes me wish I’d grabbed a cardigan).  It also seems to be an invitation to touch my shoulder in an attempt to clarify the reading—that is, strange men think it is okay to put their hands on my back as long as they declare they’re merely “reading.” Personal boundaries are rendered powerless when up against the back font.

Recently, while visiting New Orleans for a friend’s wedding, I was approached at a loud bar by three abrasive drunk men asking if I “wanted to be tied up?” After a sneer and the cold shoulder, my friends were appalled to catch them taking photos of the tattoo (“it’s for Facebook c’mon!”) a reality not uncommon with my shoulder—shutterbugs come from everywhere, the grocery store, the subway, the streets—and often without my awareness. A month after moving to NYC, after trying to ignore a drunk group of tourists on the 1 who insisted on reading my back aloud (if I had a dime for every time that happened I would be writing this piece in the new turquoise, tassled Louboutin booties) an NYU film student approached me asking if I would be interested in letting him “film” me walking through the Village for his thesis project. Apparently, people’s invasive reactions to my tattoo could be a great source of spectacle—I politely declined.

Not a day goes by without at least someone approaching me about my Mae West quote, a response that still puzzles me today. When I decided on the tattoo, I thought my biggest obstacle would be accepting its permanency and size—not dealing with other people’s reactions. It can be exhausting, too. After an aggressive couple followed my boyfriend and I around the streets of Key West last week, trying to decipher the words as I quickly dodged to lose them (like a moving target), I realized it was exhausting for him, too. “I don’t know how you deal with all these people, it’s obnoxious,” he declared. “Well, I don’t have a choice now do I?”

It has now been a year since first getting my shoulder tattoo (not to discredit my female symbol–it’s just not as blatant) and I have often thought about if it was worth it. There are days when I do regret it, but not because it has lost its symbolism but rather the reaction to it has caused its meaning to transform for me. What was meant to be a creative statement about the woman I was becoming has often been a source of frustration and imposition. The goal has become to remember why I got tattooed in the first place: as a declaration of empowerment. When I am alone, in the mirror, I am proud of those words and the importance behind them; knowing female empowerment would not be so liberating without the repercussions from some threatened assholes along the way. And the adverse reaction can be enlightening in its own right while embarking on the uphill battle of feminist declaration.  After all, experience leads to knowledge and in turn, becomes awareness—and a dame that knows the ropes isn’t likely to get tied up, now is she?

5 thoughts on “Tattoos: My Declaration of Feminism

  1. I want to thank you for sharing your reflections on your tattoos and the choices you made to get them. I, too, have never seen myself as a “tattoo-kinda-gal” but have been more and more drawn to the idea of a permanent adornment that symbolizes who I am–past, present and future. Two years ago (when I turned 39) I decided I would get a tattoo when I turned 40–the decision to get one was the easy part. Next week marks my 41st birthday and I still haven’t gotten one:( There are three reasons I haven’t had it done: 1) I can’t decide what to get, 2) I can’t decide where to get it, and 3) because I haven’t made the other two decisions, I haven’t begun the process of choosing an artist. The parts of my identity that I can see being immortalized are feminism, my faith, and teaching. My research interests have always revolved around language and I have numerous quotes that inspire me, but I also love the power of a visual symbol that evokes deep meaning for the bearer. Because this tattoo is for me, not anyone else, I want it to be somewhere I can see it without too much effort. However, I don’t want my tattoo to become something I never intended simply by creating a conversation piece for others. Your reflections on your own tattoo journey have given me a lot to think about. I can’t say I’m any closer to making a decision, but I feel like I’m moving in the right direction:)

  2. Thanks for writing this, I really enjoyed reading it. I got a female symbol tattoo as well about a month ago and I adore it. I got it as a proud symbol of my feminism. I also got it the day after my 18th birthday, so perhaps the freedom of being able to get a tattoo lured me in even sooner. Since I’ve only had it for a month, not many strangers have noticed it/asked about it (it’s decently sized on my wrist) but I’m anticipating strong reactions to it, which I will deal with as the time comes. Every time I look at my wrist I smile, I feel empowered.

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